Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Rosarita by Any Other Name...

Image via Just Our Pictures
...might be Rosaleen.  Or Ruzina.  Or Roseanne.

Naming our characters well is one of the most important things we can do as writers.  We can use names, as in the rosy samples, above, to indicate not just gender, but ethnic origin.

We can use names to indicate character age.  When we meet "Aunt Gertrude," we do not picture a young woman, do we?  A boy named Zachary, Tyler, or Austin was probably born a few years ago when those names were very popular - and he's probably got at least one or two boys in his class with the same name.   To check naming trends over time, go to the Social Security Popular Baby Names website.

Names can be timeless classics:  Michael, Paul, John...   Thanks to the wonder of "Find and Replace" we can easily change a novel or script where Stan starts out as our character name, and we decide later on that Billy Bob works better for him.  (Just don't forget to change any knicknames, as well, like Stannnie-wanny.)

Names can be ambiguous, if we want the character to appear ambiguous.

Don't we all love Pat?  And Lee, Chris, and similar boy-girl names.

Names for villains should be chillin'.  Didn't we all get shivers of fear from Lord Voldemort, Sauron, and the Wicked Witch of the West?

Witchiepoo... not so much.  Not an accident, there, softening the baddie's name to make her less threatening.  Or, perhaps, slightly ridiculous.  (I loved the ridiculousness of Witchiepoo, didn't you?  And the high quality sets and costumes.  They must have had an extravagant budget of tens of dollars per episode.  Maybe even hundreds.)

Ease off on the romance novel names - unless we're writing a romance genre novel, and even then realize that showing some originality in naming may make us stand out.  Not every male character need be named Luke, Clint, or Slade, and haven't we all had enough Skyes and Jennifers and Clitorias?  Let 'em all stay in bed, rockin' each others' worlds, for a little while.

Consider names that denote position, either social or professional, or a mix.
The Professor, Mary Ann, Gilligan, Ginger, Thurston Howell III, Lovey and the Skipper
Was there ever any question which character played which role on Gilligan's Island?  "Gilligan" was actually that character's last name, and the names are a mix of first names, job titles, nicknames (Lovey) and last names.  (In retrospect, wasn't Ginger's ongoing crush on Rock Hudson a hoot?  Undoubtedly an insider joke.)

Having a name to overcome can help the story arc, or can be a needless distraction.  I named a character Carol Burnett Jones, and although her father picked that name in honor of a beautiful, brilliant comedienne, the character herself felt ugly, untalented, and bore a serious chip on her shoulder.  That story had a humorous, coming-of-age theme, so it worked.  Beyond the pleasure of Johnny Cash's gravelly voice, A Boy Named Sue draws us in to listen to the story and sympathize with a rough-and-tumble yet internally wounded character.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a fabulous way to catch attention and highlight the tongue-in-cheek humorous tone of the movie.  These kind of contradictions can work, if they're deliberate (rather than accidental,) and if it suits the material.  We need to avoid using silly, funny names simply because we think they sound clever.  (Alas, what's witty and hilarious on the first ten reads can get so done by the thirteenth.)

Twins are cute in a Doublemint commercial, not so much on the page.  We want to avoid naming our characters names that rhyme (Shari and Terry), or are too close in pronunciation (Mary and Maria,) because that will confuse the reader, and anything that takes the reader out of the story is a bad idea.  We can make it work, if there is a good story reason (their parents were schmaltzy idiots, perhaps) and create siblings named Jason, Justin and Jeremy, but then we will have to work that much harder to imprint the characters as distinctive in other ways. 

Sometimes we can be wonderfully creative in other ways, and absolutely draw a blank when picking names for our characters.  Once we've run through all the names in the family, then what?!

We can get a "Name that Baby" book, or check online to add more options.  But there should be an (iPhone) app for that - and actually, there is.

[Editing - there was.  Sadly, Nameshake has now been discontinued as an iPhone app, which is unhappy news, because it was very cool.  But surely there'll be another app soon.]

Gadgets aside, what about last names?  The Internet is a fabulous source, as are local phone books.  We need to decide if we want our character to have something generic - like Rodriguez, or Jones, or something that points to a city or ethnicity.  Is our character one of thousands of Schmidts in Milwaukee, or the only Zmitrovich in a small Texas border town?  We need to make sure the last name we pick suits

And again, no funny business combining the first and last names: no "Olive Greens," no "Ima Stones," no "Marky Marks," unless there is a plot or character reason to mate the two.  We can't do it simply because we are feeling sadistic towards these characters who just won't behave as we want them do.

But character feeding and training will have to wait for another blog.

What were your best character names?  Your worst
Bonus question - what was "Skipper's" real name?  (no fair Googling it!)

Pin It